The Transition from Adult Literacy ESL Programs to Academic Reading and Writing:
Next Steps for English Language Learners (2005)

By Lisa Gardner Flores, 2005-2006 TCALL Fellow

& Dominique T. Chlup, Director, TCALL


The issue of how to transition English Language Learners (ELLs) from English as a Second Language (ESL) classrooms into adult literacy classrooms such as an Adult Basic Education (ABE) classroom and furthermore into a College composition classroom is one that practitioners and administrators of adult literacy programs across the country grapple with both programmatically and instructionally. How can practitioners and administrators successfully transition their ELL students? This is a question that is pondered by many practicing in the field of adult literacy, yet little research has hitherto been done in the field to provide answers.

Researcher Lisa Gardner Flores during her year as a fellow at the Texas Center for the Advancement of Literacy and Learning (TCALL) has chosen to research how to successfully transition ELL students into content area classrooms. She began her research work with a convenient sample of teachers at a community college located in Washington State. Her research in Washington State is serving as a pilot study for the work she now plans to do in Texas. She is now in the process of identifying programs in the state of Texas that are interested in being a part of her study planned for this region. If you are interested in participating in her study planned for Texas, please contact her at

In the report that follows, she documents the research she conducted in Washington State and her findings after working closely with twenty practitioners to discover how they are addressing instruction across the language curriculum. While her research is specific to one state and practitioners at one community college, it is hoped that her findings from this initial pilot study will be useful more broadly for instructors and administrators working with ELL students across the country.

I. Introduction

Similar to other colleges across the nation, a particular Washington State community college has been experiencing a larger influx of English Language Learner (ELL) students into English composition courses than ever before. These students come from varying school and program experiences, some of which are the adult literacy ESL program, Adult Basic Education (ABE) courses and the local high school. Recognizing the need to promote English Language Learner (ELL) success, multi-divisional instructors convened in this professional development workshop to address instruction across the language curriculum. This workshop format will serve as a pilot to implement further studies into transitioning ELL students into different content classrooms in the state of Texas.

The following report is a compilation of the findings resulting from this workshop. First, a brief theoretical approach to contextualized learning and the creation of programmatic connections explains the rationale for this study. Next, the workshop results are presented from information obtained from the survey instrument, notes, audio recordings and round table and group discussions. The results have been divided into four major headings: (1) background information, (2) primary instructional and curriculum concerns, (3) collaborative instructional models, and (4) findings.

II. Contextualized Learning

Research shows that students tend to learn a second language more readily when content is presented in a contextualized form (Facella, 2005). Through creating thematic frameworks, students connect vocabulary and discourse patterns to content, which facilitates both their oral and written production (Peregoy & Boyle, as cited in Facella, 2005). However, merely teaching a thematic unit does not necessarily mean that students will develop second language skills. Gersten and Baker (2000) found that incorporating language into content area instruction does not necessarily increase students’ language ability. They indicate that language proficiency does not improve by simply exposing ELL students to academic vocabulary in content areas. They continue by describing classroom experiences where English-language development (ELD) takes a second seat to content area instruction and summarize by saying: “In short, attempts to merge content area instruction with ELD instruction, while well-intended and conceptually sound are rarely well-implemented” (p. 8).

Adult literacy, second language, and developmental instruction can learn from these discoveries as more programs transition students from English as a Second Language (ESL) classrooms into Adult Basic Education, GED, and college level instruction. Once students leave the second language classroom, the tendency for instructors to use thematic units centered on language production reduces considerably, and focused language learning diminishes. Understandably, focused language development is replaced by content instruction, as instructors contend with teaching subject matter to both native and non-native speakers. However, this transition from ESL to other classroom settings can be debilitating for English Language Learners. Where the ESL classroom supports language production and provides a supportive environment for like-minded English Language Learners, other classroom environments have a heterogeneous student population, where content becomes primordial. English Language Learners now contend with both language and content development as they confront the social implications of a heterogeneous student body.

Instructional practices regularly play a role in fomenting student success. In the case of transitioning English Language Learners to other courses, perhaps the impact of instructional practices plays an even greater role when considering the variables of language production, content instruction, and classroom dynamics. This implies modification of traditional instructional practices to include the contextualization of language development into content areas, and the sensitizing of heterogeneous student populations to language and culture.

First, if ELL students do learn more readily through thematic networking, then instruction needs to be contextualized. As a result, discrete language skills, such as specific grammatical concepts, should first be placed within the contextualized theme. However, such skills must also be isolated and practiced in focused activities. In essence, second language development must play a parallel role to content instruction. These tasks are monumental in nature when one considers the content instructor’s task of teaching to set coursework objectives. However, the fundamental driving force of these modifications lies not in teaching in isolation but in collaboration. ESL, ABE, GED and English Composition instructors bring specialized and varying skills to the instructional table. Instructors who teach in isolation focus on their disciplines and the resultant pedagogical implications. By collaborating, ESL, ABE and English Composition instructors can address both the language skills needed for ELL success and the pedagogical nuances involved in teaching these isolated skills.

Second, instructors play a large role in cultural production and the promotion of diversity. They can pattern appropriate ways for students to express cultural differences while they encourage students to listen to distinct voices that are not so readily heard in the classroom. Apple (2004) recognizes that hidden curriculum values often negate the possibility for individuals to be “creators and recreators of values and institutions.” By creating a proactive approach to valuing and supporting English Language Learners’ bicultural identities while allowing monolingual students to learn from others’ lived experiences, instructors play an important role in the socialization of a diverse student population. Thus this workshop emphasizes instructor collaboration across adult literacy programs and English composition coursework to generate instructional solutions that will promote language development and value diverse cultural voices beyond the ESL classroom.

III. Background Information

Twenty attendees participated in this workshop, which extended for eight hours over a two-day period. The instructors represented a broad cross-section from both the pre-college and humanities departments. Those who attended included instructors from English as a Second Language (3), Spanish GED (1), Adult Basic Education (1), pre-college English (3), English Composition (6), humanities (2), bilingual services (1) and the writing center coordinator (1). In addition, two administrators attended. Workshop participants were asked to respond to a 25 question survey regarding curriculum, instruction, and programmatic concerns. Only 14 of the 20 participants answered the survey due to a variety of reasons; however, the results provided an initial understanding of background knowledge.

  • Seventy-nine percent (11) of the respondents believe students are placed appropriately into courses spanning ESL, ABE, and English Composition.
  • Thirty-six percent (5) of the respondents believe English Language Learners have the same skills as monolingual English speakers, while forty-three percent (6) do not. Three participants did not answer. Of those who believe ELLs have a different set of skills, the reasons most often mentioned were English language skills (6), academic writing (3), and conceptual differences (3).
  • One hundred percent of the respondents indicated that their students used interventions. Those that were mentioned the most included the writing lab (57%) and tutoring (29%).
  • Of the interventions mentioned, forty-three percent (6) of the respondents identified the writing center, and twenty-nine percent (4) identified tutoring to be the most beneficial. Other interventions that were mentioned as being beneficial included learning communities, discussion groups, comparative English/Spanish grammar classes, bilingual language assistants, linked classes, study skills courses, and more class hours.
  • Fifty-seven percent (8) of the participants did not think the ESL and English Composition courses were aligned across the curriculum.
  • Participants, for the most part, saw themselves as promoting participatory classroom styles. Some descriptive words that instructors used included: “interactive, practical, writing coach, didactic, individual tutoring, performance-based, and clear targets, little lecture.”
  • Participating instructors expressed varying opinions about whether or not English Language Learners should be taught with the same instructional approach as first language (L1) students. Some felt this depended upon the situation. Others stated that ELLs needed more support strategies, while others responded with specific ways instruction could be adapted to ELL needs. Interventions mentioned included hands-on teaching approaches, experiential learning, and a bilingual classroom approach.
  • Sixty-four percent (9) of the respondents answered that they believe holistic skills best assist English Language Learners, while three felt discrete skill learning was best. Two did not answer.
  • Respondents answered in a variety of ways to what they considered the greatest linguistic challenges: syntax (4), phonology (3), vocabulary (2), grammar (1), morphology (2), don’t know (3).
  • Respondents were asked to cite the most difficult aspects of teaching reading and writing skills to English Language Learners. Most answers were different and could not be categorized. Some responses included the following:
    • Finding interesting and relevant material
    • Teaching the writing process
    • Discuss in ways that make unique sense to that person
    • Time limitations (2)
    • Self editing
    • Getting students to ask questions
    • Semantics
    • Grammar and spelling
    • Diverse vocabulary
  • When asked what the easiest aspect to teach was, many respondents cited the positive qualities of students rather than their own teaching. Some words to describe students included, “depth of thought, desire to learn, enthusiasm for writing, and motivated.” Other instructors identified specific areas that were easiest for them to teach: “communication skills, vocabulary, summarizing, engagement with text.”

IV. Primary Instructional and Curriculum Concerns

In the first round table discussion, instructors were asked to write their individual questions about the challenges of teaching English Language Learners. Once they responded individually, instructors then spoke in round table discussions. These individual concerns can be grouped into six large categories: (1) student participation/self-esteem, (2) sensitivity to culture and language, (3) classroom management, (4) course sequencing, (5) isolated skill areas, and (6) standards and assessment. Each of these will be discussed briefly.

Self-esteem and classroom participation elicited the most comments from instructors as a primary concern. Instructors wanted to find ways to engage students that would ameliorate the lack of classroom responses. Silence was mentioned by many as an inhibitor to sufficient instructor feedback. Instructors also mentioned the desire to reinforce positive behaviors that would encourage student growth, self-confidence, and facilitation with learning.

Culture and language seemed tied to the primary concern of student participation and self-esteem. Instructors sensed that without one the other could not exist. Many commented upon the need to make content relevant for English Language Learners, find culturally relevant materials, create a classroom environment that celebrated differences, and develop cultural awareness for all students. One instructor mentioned the desire “to know how to work through the tough culturally sensitive issues…managing emotional responses.”

Classroom management comprised a variety of concerns. Several comments were made for the need to maintain a nurturing atmosphere while maintaining high expectations and standards. Another similar concern dealt with collaborative learning as it conflicted with individual assessments. A computerized test-taking scenario was given as an example, where students thought they would be able to repeat a test. Such comments point to the distinct styles by which ESL and English Composition are taught. Students find new norms when they enter a college classroom that may be distinct from the ESL classroom and are not always clearly defined.

Isolated skills rated high as an area of concern. Instructors wanted to learn ways to address the teaching of grammatical, syntactical and lexical areas, as well as study skills and critical thinking. They expressed the delicate balance between composition skills and isolated grammatical errors. They indicated the dilemma in passing a student whose composition skills are satisfactory but whose grammatical errors detract from the readable quality of the written product.

Finally three areas which were mentioned less frequently were course sequencing, standards, and assessment. The most repetitive questions that were asked related to student-readiness to progress and defining a base standard for success in English composition courses. In summary, individual instructors and the group as a whole were initially most interested in instructional and classroom issues that were pertinent to their everyday teaching. However, as collaborative options were discussed, the group supported ways of finding answers across departmental lines.

V. Collaborative Instructional Models

The workshop spanned two afternoon sessions. On the first day, the speaker addressed the English Language Learner and socio-cultural issues that surround learning. The broad categories discussed included:

  • The faces of bilingualism/biculturalism
  • Teaching English Language Learners from an instructional perspective
  • The cultural impact upon language

On the second day, the speaker introduced the Taba curriculum model (Smith, 1996, 2000), presented a holistic approach to language instruction, and discussed specific research-based strategies in approaching the instruction of discrete skills. The broad categories discussed included:

  • Multicultural models and teaching practices
  • Curriculum considerations
  • Holistic instructional approach
  • Discrete skill instruction
  • Reading and composition instruction

Instructors engaged in critical discussions about what it takes to effectively teach English Language Learners. They also brainstormed about concepts on language development, culturally-related norms, and holistic instructional models. The speaker presented different holistic instructional models, one of which is the social reconstructionism model as identified by Sleeter and Grant, reported by Tiedt and Tiedt (2005), and used frequently in multicultural formats. It was suggested that instructors could create thematic units, by which they could teach second language skills in a comprehensive, culturally sensitive format. This model was presented, and described through example. The speaker suggested that many of the instructional challenges that were initially discussed would be minimized with such an instructional approach. The example of immigration (Kennedy, 1996) was used to begin the brainstorming process. The instructors then worked to describe how they would plan such a collaborative unit together. The round table questions read as follow:

  1. Brainstorm your teaching strategies around this thematic unit. Do not consider limitations of money, time, etc.
  2. What learner outcomes would you expect your learners to know by the end of an integrated unit?
  3. How would you integrate different skill areas?
  4. Would you teach this unit by yourself or with other professionals?
  5. What interventions would be most beneficial?

Three groups described varying solutions to the given scenario. One group began by isolating the learner outcomes:

  • Apply writing and speaking skills to real life through oral histories and public presentations;
  • Identify cultural similarities and differences through sharing these stories;
  • Review and improve a peer’s story relating to organization, completeness and grammar;
  • Produce coherent/cohesive immigrant story in writing and speech;
  • Cultivate mutual acculturation.

They also added interventions and resources to benefit student learning:

  • Extra ESL sessions with ESL instructors
  • Writing center with bilingual tutor
  • Federal assistance programs known as TRIO
  • Home interviews
  • Film “El Norte”
  • Native American Guest speaker and/or visit to Local American Indian sites (e.g. Tamastslikt)

Another group approached the task in a different format, arriving at suggestions for other thematic units:


  • Food, cooking together
  • Share stories of origin, customs, home remedies,
  • Use of architectural living space in different cultures
  • Music
  • Films (perhaps subtitled)
  • Sports
  • Culture exchange
  • Jokes that don’t translate

Teaching: use expertise of various instructors

Integrate skills:

  • Retell narrative in different tenses
  • Show & tell (& notetaking)
  • Reported speech

Finally, the last group discussed the need for other departments to use this holistic model. Specifically, they discussed teaching science as a thematic unit:

  • Theme: Journeys
  • Dual credit – study cultures through literature and composition
  • Need a team of teachers and guest instructors
  • Use “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson
  • Combine writing/ science/ literature
  • Reading, vocabulary, literary excerpts, essays, thinking skills, critical thinking, study skills meta-cognition.

VI. Findings

The following is a list of observations made throughout the two-day workshop:

Finding 1: This Washington State community college has undergone recent new faculty hires after several long-term instructors retired. It appears that there is no set orientation for new instructors to inform them of the existing curricular structure. As a result, the new instructors do not know how their courses pertain to departmental and college learning outcomes. In addition, they are not fully aware of the services and interventions available for their students. For example, one instructor expressed satisfaction in learning through the workshop about the support and interventions available in the Writing Lab. A written guide that describes available campus services could ameliorate this situation.

Finding 2: Pre-college students come from many different programs and schools. In fact, pre-college courses were found to be the crossroads for entering ESL students, ABE students and entering ELL high school graduates. As a result, students are placed into pre-college courses with a variety of assessment tools: Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS), Compass, Compass-ESL. However, there is no benchmark that indicates student readiness for English Composition upon completing Pre-college courses. It is recommended that a benchmark be devised that is agreeable to both pre-college and English composition instructors to measure student readiness.

Finding 3: Instructors recognized the need to clarify the acceptability of grammatical errors across the writing curriculum. The speaker presented a form that could facilitate the process of identifying norms for each level of instruction. Once this curriculum addition exists, a list that isolates grammatical concepts can be made available at the Writing Lab, and instructors can recommend that their students study particular concepts through existing software. The lab has the complete “Focus on Grammar” software program that could be put to use in this way. By isolating such discrete skill needs, instructors could promote incremental language learning throughout the ESL, pre-college and English Composition curriculum.

Finding 4: Instructors recognized the importance of good intervention strategies. Some already function well while others exist but are not developed to their full potential. For example, mention was made to the importance of the existing bilingual language assistant program; however, it was noted that this approach functions best when bilingual assistants are well-trained and knowledgeable about their task, suggesting the need to revisit bilingual assistant training.

Finding 5: The Taba curriculum model, presented in the workshop, suggests that instructors work from a need-base to create a working curricular model. The option to create a collaborative ESL to English Composition curriculum exists at this college, including the use of thematic units that consider both the student’s public and private domains. Instructors across disciplines recognized the positive implications of working from each others’ professional strengths. At the end of the workshop, instructors expressed a desire to collaborate on a cross-divisional curriculum and to utilize the distinct knowledge-bases available to ESL, ABE and English Composition instructors.

VII. Conclusion

This workshop served as a catalyst from which to contemplate collaboration between ESL, pre-college and English Composition instructors. A positive atmosphere existed among the participants, and a true desire to collaborate across disciplines was expressed. Participants ended the session by identifying next steps towards implementation:

  1. Collaborate between Transitional Studies and English 101 teachers;
  2. Try the strategies learned in the workshop and report on the results;
  3. Find the gaps in instructional practices.

Within ten days following the workshop, instructors reconvened to discuss an implementation plan. They decided upon three first steps that would lead in this direction: (1) Reinstitute a previously used evaluation technique for placement. The college had eliminated writing samples as indicators of student readiness. However, instructors across divisions agreed that writing samples were necessary to accurately place students. (2) Work towards creating consistency in pre-college course content. Pre-college instructors agreed that this process would regularize student outcomes and readiness for English Composition while it would also allow new instructors to see the larger ramifications of their teaching practices. (3) Schedule regular meetings among adult literacy, ESL, pre-college and English composition instructors. These meetings will encourage cross-divisional interaction while the practical need of grading writing samples can be accomplished. These collaborative efforts will promote the smooth transitioning of English Language Learners into both pre-college and college classes.


Apple, M.W. (2004). Ideology and curriculum. New York: Routledge Falmer.

Facella, M., Rampino, K., & Shea, E. (2005). Effective teaching strategies for English language learners. Bilingual Research Journal 29(1), 209-221.

Gersten, R., & Baker, S. (2000). What we know about effective instructional practices for English-language learners. Exceptional Children 66(4), 454-470.

Kennedy, J. (1996). Crossing the border: A study of immigration through literature. Retrieved July 28, 2005 from

Tiedt, P.L, & Tiedt, I.M., (2005). Multicultural teaching a handbook of activities, information, and resources. New York: Pearson Education, Inc.

Smith, M. K. (1996, 2000) 'Curriculum theory and practice' the encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved July 20, 2005 from